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Friday 26 April 2019
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Calypso’s memory lane

Calypsonians of yesteryear were hailed as the social commentators of Trinidad and Tobago, whose exposés in song were often cleverly designed to strip bare the shortcomings and hypocrisies of the society, even as they titillated audiences. Their songs — calypsos — were stories told in verse from which none, whether Governor, politician, the prominent or the lowly was exempt. In turn, events, domestic and international, with a Trini bias, were recorded.

But whatever the calypsos and the topics with which they dwelt, it is always interesting going back down memory lane with them and, particularly so, in the run up to Carnival when the calypso tents are open. Over the years adjustments were made to some calypsos to reflect changes in history.

For example, at the height of the 1914-1918 World War, Trinbagonians, although they were colonials, were pro-Britain in the conflict and, oddly enough, understandably so.

A popular calypso, at the time, went: “Run you run, Kaiser Wilhelm, run you run/You hear what Lloyd George say, ‘Cheer boys cheer. For with charity and security, we go conquer Germany’.” Or words to that effect. With the advent of World War II, the calypso was resurrected with name changes: “Run you run, Adolf Hitler, Run you run/You hear what Chamberlain say?”

When Carnival was suspended during World War II, a bard sang in protest: “Te Bomina say no mas. Te Bomina. . . .” the rest was uncomplimentary. Sometimes, the identities of principals who figured in song were known to a relative few. “Whole day, whole night, Miss Mary Ann, Down by the river she sifting sand.” Or , “Take me, take me, I am feeling lonely/Take me down to Los Iros, but don’t let me mammy know.” The young lady, however, had actually been to Los Iros, I understand, unknown to her mother.

There was a rhumba dancer, early in the last century, nicknamed Ana Cona. “Did you see Ana Cona”. Yes Sir, As she dancing the rhumba, Yes Sir.” The June 19, 1937 Social Revolution, led by Tubal Uriah Butler, was the subject of a calypso the following year.

“Too bad, in Trinidad, this is the worse riot we ever had/ It was just like a mutiny, the workmen strike for more salary”.

When Government discontinued the Port-of-Spain/San Fernando rail service, a calypso with all the potential for that year’s Road March hit the tents and was often played by the radio stations. “It’s de last train to San Fernando (repeat)/And, if you miss this one, you will not get another one/It’s the last train to San Fernando.”

On the night of the Calypso king competition, the well known Tantie Tea Shop, in downtown Port-of-Spain, caught a fire. Almost immediately, a calypso, with a haunting tune, was composed. “No tea by Tantie tonight (repeat), Tantie Tea Shop burning down, No tea by Tantie tonight.” Decades earlier, a fire which destroyed, conveniently, the old Rum Bond and Treasury building on then Marine Square, later Independence Square, provided material for a popular calypso, “When de Rum Bond and de Treasury bun down.”

A man, who, several decades ago, was, reportedly, being cuckolded by his wife, had his marital misfortune put into song in the first person. “Oh, tell me where you been last night, Caroline (repeat)/All de neighbours laughing at me (repeat)/Tell me where you been last night, Caroline.” Yet another, came out once again employing the first person device. “Matilda, Matilda, she take meh money and she run Venezuela.”

The late Lord Kitchener, the Grandmaster, often sent out Road Marches for Carnival, when he resided in England. “The road make to walk on Carnival Day” was one which he had adapted from another song of his. Kitchener, in the mid 1940s had composed a gem, before his sojourn in England. “Trouble in Arima”. Meanwhile, the immortal Spoiler, on hearing of a man who had been arrested by now retired policewoman, Pearl Bruce, (one of the first batch of policewomen) and made to tiptoe to the amusement of onlookers all the way to police headquarters, sang later in the Tent: “Ah want a policewoman to hold me tight, and ah doin’ all that for spite for she to hold me tight, tight, tight.”

Who can forget Sparrow’s powerful satire: “Jean and Dinah”, or his song of protest on the importance placed on Carnival Queens and the tacit relegating of Calypsonians and steelbandsmen to low down in Trinidad and Tobago’s cultural pecking order. “Let the Queen, run the Show”, Sparrow would cry out in defiant anger, in calypso, some 50 years ago, “without steelband and calypso.

Who want to go, could go up there, but I ain’t going no way.” It was the turning point for the calypso and the steelband and Sparrow, for this, I salute you.


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